Archive for June, 2014

Water in Turkana

Monday, June 30th, 2014 by

Around this time last year I had the privilege of spending time in the remote villages of Lorengippi and Lobei in Turkana, northern Kenya.

women in Lobei collecting waterIt was a time for celebration. Practical Action had recently installed a solar powered water pump in Lobei capable of pumping out thousands of litres. The community was clearly flourishing thanks to new school toilets (which had dramatically increased attendance amongst girls), a newly restored market garden where crops were being grown and easy access to clean water for all families.

Meanwhile the village of Lorengippi rang out with song as I witnessed the first gallon or so of water being pumped out of the newly installed solar-powered pump. This community still faced all the problems Lobei had recently overcome, but the overwhelming feeling was one of optimism that a reliable supply of water would bring greater health, wealth and happiness.

Fast forward a year, and the situation isn’t so positive. Since my visit barely a drop of rain has fallen, meaning pastures have failed and the pastoralists who live and work in the region face disaster. In response, (thanks to an agreement Practical Action staff helped broker), most of the men have taken the cattle over the border to Uganda where the pastures will keep their cattle – the only source of income & wealth in the region – alive.

However, although the communities we work in have been left with clean water, sources of food have been harder to come by. The departure of the men-folk has left thousands of women and children with nothing. Our work means that in the communities in which we have installed pumps, people will no longer die from dehydration, but goats and chickens have perished and and left those who are left almost entirely dependent on food aid. Fortunately, a well-co-ordinated response from the regional government has meant that disaster has been avoided.

In years gone by, severe droughts like this year’s were once in a lifetime events. Now they are happening once every decade. The situation in Turkana underlines how we need to confront the causes of climate change and proves that no one solution can ever solve a global phenomena.

Using solar power this project will provide 45,000 people with access to safe, clean water.


Building a forest, building a future

Friday, June 20th, 2014 by

I’ve just sent the final report to the innocent foundation on Practical Action’s cloud forest project, ‘New Life to the Forests, New Life for the Amazonian People in Peru and Bolivia’. Really hope they like the report, but more importantly I’m sure they will be as proud as we are of the incredible impact that the partnership between Practical Action and the innocent foundation, together with fellow funders of the project, the Waterloo Foundation and Z Zurich Foundation, has achieved over the last three years for communities living the tropical forests of the Amazon.

If you watched, ‘I bought a rainforest’ on the UK’s BBC tv over the last three weeks, by the film director, Gavin Searle, which follows the journey of Charlie Hamilton James when he bought 100 acres of Peruvian rainforest, you will have seen the kind of challenges he experienced if he was to preserve his purchase from being felled.   By living and working with the local people he begins to realise that the way to help protect the forest is not just to buy it, but to engage with the people living in it, and to work with them rather than against them. Just the way that Practical Action has been working with the indigenous Awajun and settler families in Bolivia and Peru – working with them to better manage the cloud forests sustainably so that they, and generations to come, can make a living without removing majestic trees such as the mahogany, without growing crops and then leaving the land degraded and without having to resort to livelihoods such as illegal logging and mining, which destroy not preserve one of the riches ecosystems in the world, home to amazing flora and fauna and to more than 3.5million native and migrant people.

two girls holding  tree seedlings

We set out to work directly with almost 1,500 people living and working in the forest, and to indirectly help a further 20,000 people, through sharing lessons and good practice. At the end of the three years, we have improved the livelihoods and lives of not only the families we worked directly with, but have improved the quality of life for at least a further 63,000 men, women and children. Equally importantly, the communities, with the Foundations’ and Practical Action’s support, have begun to rebuild the forest, and to build a better future for their children, by planting over 105,000 indigenous trees, trees that will bring shade to their crops and will capture over 630,000mt of CO2 . With skills and knowledge now in place, with the Government supporting the work being carried out, this not the end of the project, but the beginning of a new life for the forests, a new life for the Amazonian people in Peru and Bolivia.

Practical Action is keen to talk to Trusts and Foundations who would like to support our work in energy, access to markets, disaster risk reduction and urban water and sanitation.  Visit our dedicated Trusts and Foundations site for more information:

What technologies are essential? Well, that all depends on the person.

Monday, June 16th, 2014 by

Nestled in the shadows of the Alps, I joined 400 people at EPFL in Lausanne last week to talk technology justice. For many it was the first time they’d heard their work framed as a justice issue.  But this lively mix of academics, development workers and technologists from 70-odd countries had something in common: their vision for all people to be able benefit from essential technology; for that technology to be more environmentally sustainable; and to overcome the injustice faced by billions of people who go without food, shelter or water each day, despite humanity having the technological ability to provide it.

Unserved by Nairobis water supply. slum dwellers connected illegally through so-called spagetti connections

Unserved by Nairobis water supply. slum dwellers connected illegally through so-called spagetti connections

A compelling address from the World Health Organisation drove home that in medicine there is plenty of available technology, as well as big business interest and a huge research and development effort. But even then, very little technological effort is aimed at benefiting the vast numbers of people in the developing world who don’t already access even basic medical technologies, and yet carry the world’s burden of disease and medical risk. Still today, 800 mothers die each day in childbirth: many of whom could be saved by the having access to simple, existing medical devices. Adriana Velasquez Berumen reminded us of a pressing need for new innovation of devices that are appropriate for use in remote, harsh environments or where there may be minimal services such as electricity and water.

I presented Practical Action’s work in urban areas of Bangladesh, Nepal and Kenya as part of a discusson on essential technologies for the mega-cities of the future.

this water seller now has a formal agreement with water company and can deliver clean water, legally in a way slum dwellers want it

this water seller now has a formal agreement with water company and can deliver clean water, legally in a way slum dwellers want it

The conclusions: the people are more important than the specific technologies. Involving them in decision-making and planning is crucial to creating cities where all citizens can enjoy all essential basic services – waste collection, water connection and toilets. The technology itself is secondary.

This perspective is one that I hope will be shared by the LBNL Institute for Globally Transformative Technologies (LIGTT). Recognising that R&D into technologies that serve the needs of the poor just is not happening at the necessary scale, they’ve compiled a list of critical problems and promising interventions for priority development and deployment. I’ll be keeping an eye out for publication of their 50 breakthroughs for sustainable development in the next few months. What would be top of your list?

Safer cities – how bicycles are the workhorses of water and sanitation projects….

Monday, June 16th, 2014 by

This weekend I heard the ‘Tandem Turners’ talk about their round the world ride to raise money and awareness for Practical Action, I reflected on how today, bicycles play a big role in the lives of poor communities.

Hearing the ‘Tandem Turners’ talk about their round the world ride to raise money and awareness for Practical Action, I reflected on how today, bicycles play a big role in the lives of poor communities.  I’ve recently returned from Southern Bangladesh and having visited, there are two jobs I’ve identified as being my version of hell:

1. Pit latrine emptier
2. Rickshaw driver

Kitchen waste collected by these bikes is turned into compost or biogas for cooking

Kitchen waste collected by these bikes is turned into compost or biogas for cooking

It’s obvious how a bicycle plays a role in Rickshaws, but what do bicycles have to do with pit latrine emptying? …and it’s obvious that emptying pit latrines as a living would be a nightmare, but what’s wrong with being a rickshaw driver?

Well rickshaws are definitely at the bottom of the road transport pecking order. Imagine… its rush hour, the roads are jam packed with tuc-tucs, cars, buses and lorries, you have no gears, there’s a passenger or two sitting passively in the back…oh and then there is their luggage…. Now this can be a small briefcase or hand bag, or it can be about 200 kilos of reinforced steel cabling (15 foot long), 100 kilos of mangoes, jack fruit or several 20 kilo sacks of rice… the temperature is in the mid thirties Celsius and the humidity is over 70 percent. Everyone else on the road has priority over you, everyone is hooting their horn at you and the pay you receive is not in line with the effort you exert.

New sludge carts and safety equipment.

New sludge carts and safety equipment.

So pit latrine emptying…bicycles, really?  Well yes. In order to empty a pit latrine situated deep in the warren of narrow pathways in a slum, you need something to transport the waste that’s small enough to get between the houses but strong enough to cope with loads up to 200 kilos. Practical Action is working with communities of Bengali and Harijan ‘sweepers’ whose lot in life it is to clean the streets and empty pit latrines. With no safety equipment, just their bare hands and a bucket, these men and women remove foul smelling liquid sludge from these latrines and take it away – to be dumped into a canal or a ditch somewhere in the city. Our Safer Cities appeal last Christmas means that now, with Practical Action’s help, they are receiving training and safety equipment, and new sludge transporting bicycle carts. The next step is to work with the municipalities to help them deal with the sludge safely, and to invest in machinery that can be fitted to bicycle carts so that the sludge can be pumped from the pit without needing someone to climb inside.

Bicycle carts play an important role in other ways in this project. Specially adapted carts are used to collect kitchen waste from homes, that is used to create compost for farming, or digested to generate gas for cooking, piped to homes close by.

In communities where safe drinking water is still a dream, bicycle carts bring clean water to be sold for drinking and cooking. So whether its bringing clean water, removing waste or sludge, the bicycle still has the power to transform poor communities.  Helping poor communities access appropriate technologies is still a key part of our work, and a key part of the puzzle in achieving a state of technology justice – where technology is used to for the benefit of all.

This pump means that pit emptiers can remove the sludge more safely.

This pump means that pit emptiers can remove the sludge more safely.

Bringing safe clean water where there is none...

Bringing safe clean water where there is none…

Fritz Schumacher said ‘the gift of knowledge sets people free’

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014 by

I’m sitting in a tiny, overly hot hotel room in London  planning how to talk about knowledge with our international directors tomorrow.

Our work on knowledge sharing – maximising the benefits of everything we do by sharing with the people who need to know the details of our work and/or learning – how to do it – is brilliant!

I remember hearing of a group in the Democratic Republic of Congo who had communicated with our technical enquiry service about the design of a micro hydro system to power a village – the report was branded IT (as in Intermediate Technology even before my time with Practical Action) but only now after many years were they in a position to put it into action. And they intended to build – they had been dreaming, waiting for the right time.

Fulkumari from, Nawalparasi, Nepal with her improved crops

Fulkumari from, Nawalparasi, Nepal with her improved crops

On the other hand I recall talking with a woman in Nepal who through Practical Answers had learnt about low cost home produced organic pesticide – the immediate impact on her crop was fantastic and the increased income had transformed her life and that of her family.Beyond this our work in Publishing and Education is so impactful. Have a look at ‘Engineering in Emergencies’ to get a sense of how vital our knowledge work is.

Not to go on and on but ….

Another form of knowledge sharing is through our consultancy service – this is a great example of working together with Action Aid in Afghanistan.

And I’ve just heard that our podcasting, which is making a massive and practical difference to poor farmers in Zimbabwe, is shortlisted for a prestigious award as one of the most impactful technologies of the century for poverty reduction.

Fritz Schumacher in Small is Beautiful talked about how ‘the gift of knowledge sets people free’ and for Practical Action this remains central to our thinking.

So you may ask – what’s the problem why do your international directors need to discuss?

In part it’s about how big donors  – in part it’s about us. How big donors work is all about delivering certain out puts – and knowledge isn’t considered an important output important by most. With Practical Action it’s about us finding the resources – irrespective of donors to grow our knowledge work. We have evidence that shows our knwoledge work helps many millions of people every year.

Knowledge of course isnt all thats needed to get rid of poverty, but not sharing what you learn about what works for poor families so others can replicate is just wrong!!

Looking forward to hosting the knowledge day tomorrow.

And as far as knowledge is concerned – my ask of you is to tell people about Practical Action. We are exciting and our work is too!


Thank you

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014 by

Thank you photo

Practical Action would like to ‘Thank you’

In today’s world most of us live life in fast forward, whether it’s rushing to get the kids to school or nursery, the daily commute to work battling the rush hour traffic or hoping today will be the day I get that seat on the train – but how many of us actually stop long enough to say THANK YOU!

Today all of us at Practical Action would like to take the time to stop, and say a huge THANK YOU to all our supporters who make it possible for us to help poor communities change their lives for the better.

Your generosity never ceases to amaze us. So to all of you who support us financially, give talks on our behalf, hold coffee mornings, include us in personal events by donating gifts in lieu of weddings, anniversaries, and birthday presents, take on amazing challenges like climbing Kilimanjaro, cycling around the world, half marathons, and those who still think of others by leaving a legacy or an in-memorial gift.

From all at Practical Action we say a big THANK YOU! 

PS: See some of the work you have helped to support and listen to a personal ‘Thank you’ from our Country Director, Veena Khalequein Bangladesh. 


Bio-dyke construction brings rays of hope in Northern Afghanistan

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014 by

A recent flooding in remote part of Northern Afghanistan killing 80 people and leaving thousands homeless was one of the most talked about news in leading newspaper including the Guardian. Likewise, last month a landslide triggered by heavy rain buried large sections of a remote north-eastern village in Badakhshan province displacing some 700 families. Local authorities are struggling to cope with after effects of the natural disasters.

In order to contribute in national risk reduction mechanism in Afghanistan, Practical Action Consulting is providing technical assistance to Action Aid International to pilot a community based early warning system to reduce effects of flood, mitigate disaster risks of vulnerable communities and in-depth soil erosion in two provinces of Northern Afghanistan.

In addition, the project is playing important role to raise awareness and capacity about importance of early warning system via awareness camps, trainings, mock-drill within community.  It is believed that this will help them deal better with flood and disaster and furnish them with knowledge and skills necessary to carry out further risk reduction activities in future.

Amu River Early Warning Project funded by European Commission Directorate-General Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO) under its DIPECHO Seventh Action Plan has been doing different types of activities since July 2013 till date. Awareness raising for instance awareness campaign (village level awareness camp on importance of early warning system, installation of EWS hoarding boards, distribution of EWS calendars etc. ), mock drill,  trainings like first-aid, search and rescue training, distribution of first-aid kit box,  capacity building and sensitisation training. Moreover, the activities like establishment of small scale mitigation measures, for instance bio-dyke construction, installation of EWS equipment for example flood gauge installation are bringing some rays of hope for people of Areq Ayeq residing at the bank of Amu River Basin and thus, they are getting ready to cope with flood of Amu River.

Habibullah“We now have 500 metres bio-dyke to protect the river bank from flood,” said Mr. Habibullah, member-DRR Committee/manager-School Management Committee. He further added that bio-dyke protected their school. Further, community people are able to cope with flood and know how to evacuate during disaster. “Earlier I used to be afraid of flood but after receiving training on early warning system, search and rescue by Action Aid/Organisation of Human Welfare (OHW), I am not afraid of it anymore,” Habibullah expressed with pleasure. However, he shared that length of bio-dyke has to be increased in future and project has to be extended giving high priority to their village. Lastly, he added that construction of such kind of bio-dyke is not only helping  in reduction from cutting of river bank but also protects our cultivable land together with formation of green and healthy environment through plantation of species like Salix spp. (willow) further providing income generation activities.

Further, the project is coordinating well with government body Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority (ANDMA). The coordination is believed to help the government body realise the matters of ownership and sustainability. For this reason, EWS cells have been established in both the provinces (Balkh and Jawzjan) of project area together with recruitment of EWS Officer who is responsible to support project, take responsibility in   establishment of communication channel, analyse, store and collect flood data and mobilise local communities and gauge readers  for the effective implementation of the project.

The project has been expected to reduce annual loss of life and property due to flood in selected villages of Kaldar, Shortepa, Qarqin and Khamab districts. It has been realised that with targeted injection of external assistance, communities can be made more reliant and actively mitigate against risk. Similarly, working in close coordination with ANDMA, cost effectiveness, ownership and sustainability of the project are embedded in province/district targets and plan.

With the encouraging work in the ground, let’s expect no more news of disaster happen in the Northern Afghanistan next year.

Removing iron and arsenic from drinking water for slum communities in Bangladesh

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014 by

Satkhira is one of Bangladesh’s oldest municipalities, created in 1869. Bordering the world famous Sunderbans, home to Royal Bengal Tigers and a globally important mangrove ecosystem, it’s a town that tourists pass by, but plays a hugely important role for the people living in the region.

Climate change is beginning to wreak havoc here. Erratic monsoon rainfall, and flooding (which never used to affect this part of Bangladesh) have combined to make subsistence farming incredibly difficult. In recent years more and more farming families have given up their traditional way of life to make a living and find security in Satkhira. This steady flow of climate migrants was beginning to put the town’s resources under pressure. When cyclone Aila smashed the region in 2009 the sudden influx of many thousands of refugees meant that the existing infrastructure failed. Satkhira is still trying to overcome this problem five years later, and every day, the steady influx of economic and climate migrants continues. With very little cash, and only able to find poorly paid jobs, many of these migrants end up living in the informal settlements dotted around the town.

Access to drinking water is a real problem. The natural geology of the region means that shallow wells are contaminated with arsenic and iron. The contamination causes serious health issues including some cancers as well as kidney and liver failure. Coupled with this is the increasing salinity of groundwater caused by the tidal surges of cyclones, the reduction of river flow as water is diverted upstream for irrigation and the switch from traditional rice and jute farming to raising lucrative salt water shrimps. Farmers are allowing the seawater to inundate their land as shrimp farming generates more income than rice paddy can. We passed many of these shrimp farms on the road into Satkhira.

Practical Action is working with the slum communities and the municipality of Satkhira to help find solutions to their joint problems. I was here to better understand the work that has been funded by our record breaking ‘Safer Cities’ appeal, match funded by the Department for International Development, that ran over Christmas 2013. In Satkhira the funding means communities like the one I visited today, called Missionpara, can have access to clean, safe water and sanitation too. Missionpara is a relatively small settlement of around 30 households, with about 180 people squeezed into tiny homes in what would be a long access road between two properties here in the UK.


add guava leaves...

add guava leaves…

...wait a couple of minutes

…wait a couple of minutes

....and the poisoned water is revealed as it discolours

….and the poisoned water is revealed as it discolours

In Missionpara the community has been dependent on shallow tube wells that supply iron and arsenic contaminated water. With Practical Action’s help, the community now has a brand new sand filter that removes the contamination and pipes clean water to every house in the community.

The community has organised its own water supply committee and every family pays a small sum (about 50p a month) that contributes to a maintenance fund to ensure the filter, pump, pipes and taps will still be working years into the future. As we arrived to meet the water supply committee chair, a lovely lady called Aklima, the heavens opened. The monsoon is due to start on the 10th June (very precise!) I was told and these showers were the precursor.

As we huddled together under the filter superstructure, I was shown a traditional test that proved the filter was indeed working. Two identical glasses of water were place on the pump housing and guava leaves crushed into them. In a matter of moments, the glass filled with water from the old tube well began to discolour as a black compound began to precipitate out of the water. The glass filled with water from the filtered, piped water system remained clear.


Innovation in the energy sector

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014 by

I have just come back from  New York where we launched Practical Action’s 2014 Poor People’s Energy Outlook report at the UN in New York, during a United Nations Sustainable Energy for All high level meeting to mark the start of the UN decade for sustainable energy.

22862What became obvious from our meetings during the week is the need to ensure our energy work remains innovative in what has become a very fast changing environment.  The energy sector is heavily focused on the private sector and we need to engage with this to become more effective.

The sectors we work in include:

Solar Photovoltaics
This sector has a large number of social entrepreneurs and is quite competitive.  Practical Action acts primarily as a market facilitator, which means that we have to know their markets better than them – not easy!

Improved Cook Stoves
We have supported local producers in the past but there have been issues with building these up to sustainable, high quality production and there is increasing competition from high performance factory made stoves. Again what role can we play?

We work on development, installation and community management, although recently have begun to look at scalable models, such as MEGA in Malawi. Private sector companies seem to be getting more and more into micro-hydro/mini-grid initiatives with some success (e.g. Husk power in Tanzania, Inensus in Senegal, DC Hydro in Rwanda), so  in the future should we compete or collaborate?

It is really important in all our work  that we keep up to date with what’s going on around us and constantly ask ourselves the question – how is what we are doing different from what others are doing and how is it innovating and taking the sector forward? Recognising we might not be at the forefront of a sector is an important first step in finding our way to something which is more innovative, either in terms of technology or in demonstrating new and successful ways of delivering at scale.

We already have some great examples of our current innovative work in the energy sector:

  1. Nepal has just started a project on smoke hoods using a new form of ‘Results Based Finance’ from GiZ and is also about to start a new project looking to establish small enterprises on existing micro hydro projects as a way of making them financially more sustainable.
  2. Our MEGA project in Malawi is trying to establish a social enterprise utility to manage a number of micro hydro schemes as a different management model.
  3. And in Sudan the use of carbon finance for LPG cookstoves, engaged the interest of the global trade body representing the LPG industry.

But we are going to have to get a lot more creative to become a leading edge organisation in the sector again on the implementation side which is an exciting challenge for Practical Action.

Changing trends – from folklores to modern weather information system

Friday, June 6th, 2014 by

“The higher the clouds, the finer the weather,” says Somnath, an old farmer living in one of the rural villages in Nepal, citing an old-fashioned weather forecasting proverb. There are many farmers like Somnath who still follow these folklores for weather forecasting. People who have no access to internet or any other weather forecasting technologies still make forecasts based on their observations of the sky, animals, and nature.

Farmers in Nepal are dependent on agriculture for their livelihood and agricultural production is strongly dependent on the weather. As a result, agricultural profits are heavily affected by the accuracy of weather forecasts. Depending on traditional weather forecasting adages in 21st century when climate change has been changing the weather pattern is very risky for farmers. Taking this into consideration, Practical Answers in Nepal and Jhuwani Community Library and Resource Centre (CLRC) started providing weekly weather forecast to farming communities in Bachhauli Village Development Committee (VDC) in Chitwan district of Nepal from 10 December 2012.

Like Somnath, the farming communities of Bachhauli VDC also used to follow the old proverbs before Practical Answer’s intervention there. The forecasts worked for them sometimes only. It was only when Practical Answers started providing weekly weather forecasts to farming communities that they started getting accurate and dependable weather forecasting.

Jhuwani CLRC is one of the 20 knowledge nodes of Practical Answers in Nepal which has been providing technical information to poor communities. This CLRC provides weather information to the farmers by writing weekly forecasts on a display board and also by printing it on papers. The printed papers are hand-delivered to the farmers by Practical Answers Focal Person.

A staff of Jhuwani CLRC writing weekly weather forecast on the display board

A staff of Jhuwani CLRC writing weekly weather forecast on the display board

To make the weather information dissemination more wide spread and beneficial to the farmers, Practical Action, Bachhauli VDC and Jhuwani CLRC have been working together.  The local farmers contact Practical Answers’ knowledge node before harvesting, planting, ploughing or doing any agriculture related work that get affected by the changing weather. They come to the library, get weekly weather information and then work according to the weather forecast. This has helped them time their agricultural activities, which has largely reduced the losses due to change in weather.

Jhuwani Library has also started circulating weather information system through Facebook and is seeking funds to pilot this concept through Toll Free Number, FM radio stations and SMS too. Practical Action is working in coordination with Jhuwani CLRC and Bachhauli VDC to make the weather information system more effective by introducing SMS and Toll Free Number systems in the future.

These days, it is very hard to find farmers like Somnath, in Bachhauli VDC, who follow traditional weather forecasting system. If farmers from rural villages are provided with this kind of timely technical information, they won’t any more rely on the ages-old folklores. Instead, the adages will be used as a humour. And of course, the agricultural losses will be minimised.